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Chili growers battle to keep crop on track

LAS CRUCES – In the face of a potential onslaught from an insect army of beet leafhoppers, New Mexico chili growers stepped up the fight this season with extra measures to protect their fields.

“As of now, the crop looks solid,” said Stephanie Walker, a vegetable specialist with New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service. “The growers have taken extraordinary precautions to minimize any losses this year, and it looks like we’re going to have a good season.”

Don Biad, co-owner of Biad Chili Co., a Las Cruces-based chili processing facility, said, “There’s a chance the crop could come in a little on the shy side, but it’s not as bad as it could have been if people hadn’t followed those early warnings.”

Back in March, when the crop was being planted, growers had quite a few factors to fret over. A steady series of winter rains had created prime conditions in southern New Mexico for a deadly plant disease called curly top. Those showers had germinated a bumper crop of weeds that blanketed the region, said Mark Renz, an Extension weed specialist.

The winter of 2004-05 was the wettest in more than a century of record-keeping in New Mexico, and over the past year, the entire state of New Mexico has seen above-average precipitation, according to the National Weather Service’s Albuquerque office.

The problem for chili producers is that the weeds are the winter home of the beet leafhopper, which transmits curly top virus to chili, he said. Curly top can cut chili stands severely. If the disease hits early, the plant will die outright. If the damage occurs later, the plant will become stunted, stiff and yellow, and the pepper pods will not form correctly.

As a first line of defense, many farmers applied costly chemical treatments at planting, then followed with an additional application, Walker said. “These guys are pumping a lot of money into this crop, but if they can prevent curly top then they should make that money back,” she said. “Many also took extra effort to clear their fields of weeds.”

Other production techniques used to hold on to the pepper crop this season include heavier group plantings and not thinning the crop as heavily later in the season. If the chili plants are knocked back by disease, the goal is to have enough plants in the field to take up the slack.

In 2001 and 2003, curly top outbreaks cut the chili crop by almost a third on many farms in southern New Mexico.

Meanwhile, chili experts continue to see a trend in the use of highly efficient drip irrigation systems to boost pepper yields despite the return of the rains. “We’re seeing more and more drip,” said John White, Doña Ana County horticulture agent with NMSU Extension.

Drip irrigation does have a high initial installation cost, but the system also brings water and labor savings, along with better management potential, he said. In subsurface drip irrigation, water is applied directly to the plant’s roots through a series of black plastic lines or drip tape buried about six inches deep.

In a typical furrow system, the grower is constantly stressing the chili plant either by giving it too much water or drying it out, White said. Under a drip irrigation system, the plant is watered frequently in small amounts and the chili plant receives the optimal amount of water.

“Yield increases will vary with the variety and soil conditions, but it can be substantial in a well-run system,” he said.

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